Track and Field of Dreams, by David Bax
It’s been 25 years since Kevin Costner rode the plains and won the Oscars in Dances with Wolves. He’s taken flak in the intervening years for perpetuating “noble savage” stereotypes and now his newest star vehicle, Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA, could add fuel to the fire by being another attempt at the tired “white savior” subgenre (in fact, it fits the mold even better than Dances). Those criticisms will be valid but, thankfully, Caro is interested in giving us more than just Runs with Latinos. Under her guidance, McFarland is a work of humble power, the kind of sincere, heartwarming family cinema we haven’t seen since The Rookie.
Costner plays Jim White, a real-life high school football coach whose hotheaded ways have him moving from job to job, down the rung until, in 1987, he finds himself in the tiny, poor and almost entirely Latino town of McFarland, California. He immediately almost gets fired again before noticing that many of his students happen to be able to run really fast. And so he starts McFarland’s first cross country team.
It’s at this point that hand of Disney begins to make itself known. These hardscrabble boys, some of whom are meant to have long histories of discipline problems at school, are far too pliant. Either that or Costner’s soulful gaze has untold powers. They should have sent him into that school from The Wire.
In most other ways, though, Caro avoids familiar Hollywood shorthand, opting instead for an authentic evocation of a place and its community. Cinematographers Adam Arkapaw and Terry Stacey paint the town in organic, sensory strokes of hot, harsh and dusty light instead of the overly processed golden tones of genre-mate Glory Road. And editor David Coulson guides things along at the determined but comfortable pace of an evening jog.
The cast chips in too, of course. Costner and his family, played by Maria Bello and Morgan Saylor (who, after Homeland, is really nailing the ‘teenage girl who’s pissed at her dad’ niche) actually feel like a family. And the Latino boys who make up the team give performances that are varied enough to keep them from being mere story tools.
McFarland, USA has its share of problems. The ubiquitous Coca-Cola product placement, the montages, the speeches and, worst of all, the terrible score that is completely without character. But Caro has rescued this journeyman assignment from disingenuous tropes and made a humanistic film that truly will be fun for all ages.